Before Katie Couric. Before Matt Lauer and Willard Scott and Jane Pauley and way before the execrable Bryant Gumbel there was J. Fred Muggs, the first American simian TV personality.
The year was 1952, and the National Broadcasting Company had premiered on January 14th a live morning TV show that it hoped would replace the daily newspaper at the nation's breakfast tables. The Today Show, brainchild of the late Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (father of the lustrous Sigourney, and one of the savviest programmers before or since), experienced rough-going in its first iteration. Dave Garroway, the loquacious and affable nerd-next-door host in glasses and a bowtie, was having difficulty holding onto his audience and his ratings with a unique mix of overnight news, weather, recipes, fashion shows and weird inventions.
Since those were kinder, gentler times, the network mixed and matched concepts desperately for over a year before Groundhog Day, February 2, 1953 (James Joyce's birthday anniversary probably went unnoticed). That was the day a 13 week-old chimpanzee, who weighed three and a half pounds and wore a diaper, first saw the lights of The Today Show studio.
Rugrats across America sat up and took notice of adorable J. Fred Muggs, Dave Garroway's new, unh, co-host. And what American household doesn't want a happy toddler? Parents and even curious TV viewers who wouldn't be caught dead with children flocked to the show in record numbers, turning NBC's innovative show into must-see TV.
Well I remember J. Fred Muggs, children. By the time I caught up with him (I'm not that old!) he was wearing a cute little suit, playing the piano, and turning somersaults in a studio that had a glass wall fronting on Rockefeller Plaza. Tourists were lined up six-deep just to watch J. Fred interview celebrities. The no-nonsense Garroway had long-since relaxed into a comfortable relationship with the chimp, not unlike that of Jane and Bryant, and all was well with the world and NBC.
In the same manner they operate now, network executives decided that if one chimp worked so well, two chimps would work even better. They introduced J. Fred to a female chimp named Phoebe B. Beebee, and ratings, of course, soared. This was about the time that J. Fred was beginning to…mature…one might say (he weighed 175 pounds full-grown) and his antics appeared— even to little me, scrunched up on the living room floor with my cheerios— to be something more than cute. When he bit comedienne Martha Raye on the elbow on the air in April of 1954, NBC shipped Muggs on a promotional tour of the world (but not Africa). The Soviet newspaper of record, Izvestia, made a point of describing every American's favorite TV host as "A symbol of the American way of life…Muggs is necessary in order that the average American should not look into reports on rising taxes, and decreasing pay, but rather laugh at the funny mug of a chimpanzee."
And you know something? I think Izvestia might have had it right. I base that conclusion on the unbroken succession of "personalities" that have graced our television screens ever since.
But J. Fred Muggs was the first, the original. He was trained by Carmine "Bud" Mennella, who died recently in Tampa, Florida, at the age of 80, but not until after seeing his chimpanzee newsman-actor-musician-dancer-roller skater bring a hundred million dollars to NBC, get his own PBS show, tour the world with Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe, and eventually retire happily to Busch Gardens in Florida.
J. Fred Muggs turned fifty this past March. He lives in Florida with Phoebe B. Beebee (she's 48), and—one imagines—they couldn't be a happier couple. They've outlasted Bryant and Jane and set the standard for American Television programming.